Resettlement agencies react to state ban on new refugees

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AUSTIN (KXAN) – Major refugee resettlement groups face a new reality: the programs through the Federal government and non-profits can no longer move refugees to Texas before first going to other states.

In September 2019, President Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13888 allowed states to opt-out of the Federal refugee resettlement program.

“State and local governments are best positioned to know the resources and capacities they may or may not have available to devote to sustainable resettlement,” President Trump wrote in the order. States had to respond in writing if they wanted to opt-out.

On January 10th, Governor Greg Abbott sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responding to the executive order. Saying in short, Texas doesn’t want to handle any more.

Since 2010, more refugees have been received in Texas than in any other state, about one in ten of all refugees, according to Abbott. In May, around 100,000 people were apprehended crossing the Texas-Mexico border.

“Texas continues to have to deal with the consequences of an immigration system that Congress has failed to fix. At this time, the state and non-profit organizations have a responsibility to dedicate available resources to those who are already here, including refugees, migrants, and the homeless—indeed, all Texans,” wrote Abbott.

Abbott’s letter said this action will stop new refugees from entering the state from another country but not from another state.

“Texas has carried more than its share in assisting the refugee resettlement process and appreciates that other states are available to help with these efforts,” wrote Abbott.

“Texas, as many people know, has been the largest resettlement state for refugees because we are such a welcoming state,” said Erica Schmidt-Portnoy, program director at Refugee Services of Texas, “We take people in. They find good jobs. They’re hard workers. And they integrate really well and smoothly into the local communities in Texas.”

Most refugees slotted for Texas come from southeast Asia, Central Africa, or Central America according to Schmidt-Portnoy.

The action by Abbott “is going to have a big, tremendous impact on the State of Texas, economically, and socially as well. And time will tell what that exactly looks like,” she said.

Making refugees go somewhere else in the country first – per Abbott’s actions – will stop many from coming. Schmidt-Portnoy says over the past two years, they’ve resettled more than 1,800 people. Only 46 of them came from other states first.

“This is a very different, you know, unfortunately, it’s a very different climate to work in when it comes to welcoming families and newcomers to the state of Texas,” said Schmidt-Portnoy.

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops issued a joint statement, asking Abbott – who is Catholic – to change his mind.

“While the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops respects the governor, this decision is simply misguided. It denies people who are fleeing persecution, including religious persecution, from being able to bring their gifts and talents to our state and contribute to the general common good of all Texans,” wrote the group in a joint statement, “As Catholics, an essential aspect of our faith is to welcome the stranger and care for the alien.”

“No one seeking refugee status in the United States will be denied that status because of the Texas decision. Importantly, the decision by Texas will not prevent any refugee from coming to America. Equally important, the Texas decision doesn’t stop refugees from moving to Texas after initially settling in another state,” wrote John Wittman, press secretary for Gov. Abbott.

Texas is the first and only state to reject new refugees to the country. According to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, President Trump is still waiting to hear back from Wyoming, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. Most other Republican governors have allowed refugees into their states.

Three major refugee resettlement agencies have filed suit against the Trump Administration over the executive order.

In 2015, Abbott tried to stop Syrian refugees from entering Texas after a Paris attack and the Islamic State claimed responsibility. The move was blocked by Washington.

The next year, Abbott withdrew the state from the resettlement program altogether, which meant the mainly non-profit refugee resettlement agencies would not get state assistance or aid in bringing refugees to Texas. Most of the money to pay for the Office of Refugee Resettlement program comes from the Federal government taxpayers.

According to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, in 2015, out of 66,517 total refugees who came to the U.S., 6,857 arrived in Texas. In 2016, 8,932 out of 96,874 arrived in Texas. In 2017 2,832 out of 33,368 arrived in Texas. In 2018, 1,735 out of 22,874 arrived in Texas. In 2019, 2,225 out of 27,514 arrived in Texas.

Special immigrant visa holders like former interpreters the US military uses overseas – mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan – will continue to be resettled with the same benefits.

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